There Are Aliens on Earth, Right Now
the nub accompanying the story Solid, Mostly Smooth
(18 minute read)
They are disturbingly intelligent, they have nine brains and three hearts, they use their own skin as a screen instead of smartphones, and they live in the sea. Also, they are adorable and feature in more kid’s cartoons than you can count.
Part One: An Absurdly Distant Cousin
When asked which animals humans are most closely related to, most people would correctly answer, “Apes!” But which animals are evolutionarily the furthest away from us? Lizards? Chicken? Fish? Wrong. There is one that trumps them all: the octopus. (Technically, there are others that are a tiny bit more distant from us, like sea urchins, but they are just not as fun.)
The last common ancestor of humans and octopuses lived around 600 million years ago. This number may not seem very significant, because our brains are terrible at imagining these kinds of numbers. So, let us put it in perspective.
The first animals on Earth (sponges and jellyfish) developed around 800 million years ago. Let that sink in. Humans and octopuses spent three quarters of the entire time that animals existed on Earth on separate ways.
Compare this to the last common ancestor of humans and chimps, who lived a mere 6 million years ago. That of humans and dogs lived 100 million years ago. And the common ancestor of humans and plants lived 1000 million years ago. That makes octopuses pretty much the most distant cousin imaginable. Yes, we are even closer related to fish than to octopuses.
The common ancestor of humans and octopuses was probably worm-like. It had a crude nervous system, but nothing near a mind or intelligence. Other than humans, chimps, dolphins, and dogs, who all evolved from the same, probably already conscious ancestor, the minds of octopuses have developed entirely on their own. Their consciousness shares literally nothing with that of humans in evolutionary terms. For all intents and purposes, that makes them an alien to us.
Part Two: Inside the Mind of an Alien
How does the mind and brain of an octopus work then? It cannot be that different from those of humans or other animals, right? Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of the book Other Minds, would beg to differ. (Also, if you have ever seen a funny Youtube film of an octopus, chances are good he filmed it. Now you know whom to thank.)
The human nervous system, like that of most other animals, is centralised. Of course, nerves extend to every part of your body, but all higher processing is done in the thin spinal cord and the massive central brain. This is essentially the same for all other mammals, birds, reptiles, and even fish. Except that most of them do not get the same bragging rights for a big brain.
You might have guessed it: octopuses are different. Their nervous system is spread throughout their entire bodies in little clusters of nerve cells called ganglia. Every one of their arms has its separate controls, along with its own centre for touch and smell.
If you cut off a human’s arm, it flaps to the ground and does nothing. If you cut off an octopus’ arm, it will die eventually because it has no mouth to eat, but it can live on happily for quite some time. It even has the brainpower to perform basic functions like grabbing.
Only a meagre third of an octopus’ nerve cells are grouped into a central brain, similar in structure to that of a human. With one minor difference: the esophagus runs straight through it. An octopus swallows food right through a hole in their central brain before it enters their stomach. When they eat something sharp, it can actually cause brain damage. Sounds pretty alien, eh?
But what does that mean for the mind of an octopus? Does it still think like we do? Here our evidence becomes thin, but we do have some.
It seems that an octopus’ arms enjoy a certain freedom of choice. Observational studies have found evidence that octopuses sometimes even seem to forget what a specific arm is doing. Imagine standing in the kitchen and preparing lunch and then discovering that your left hand has made tea without you noticing.
Most likely, an octopus’ central brain (and, possibly, mind) acts more like the leader of a group, and less like the unchallenged dictator our own brains are over our bodies.
When an octopus encounters something interesting or potentially dangerous, it sends out only one arm ahead, suggesting at least some sort of central control over the other seven. The explorer arm, however, carries out a more or less independent search of the thing it is sent to investigate. It is very plausible that an octopus regards its arms more like companions than actual parts of itself, although such a hypothesis is inherently difficult to prove.
Unlike humans, dogs, and dolphins, octopuses are quite anti-social. They do not hunt in packs, do not raise their kids, and generally tend to stay away from each other except for brief interludes of sex. That poses the question: Why are they so intelligent?
In the animal kingdom, social skills are often closely correlated with brain power. That makes sense, because social interactions (as we all know) are difficult. Yet, octopuses show remarkable intelligence and creativity for an animal that does not seem to need either. They solve mazes, learn by observing other octopuses, and recognise humans they know in a crowd of people all wearing the exact same clothes.
These surprising mental capabilities might have actually developed not out of need but as a byproduct. Other than humans, who have a relatively straightforward body structure and only a handful of major ways they can move, octopuses are basically fluid. They can form temporary joints in their arms and morph their bodies into whatever shape they desire. It is possible that they developed their brilliant nine brains only to be able to control their unruly arms, and suddenly woke up with a lot more processing power and creativity as a side effect.
Part Three: Speaking with an Octopus
Speech is inherently tied to human consciousness. Even when we are not actively using it to communicate with others, we are using it to communicate with ourselves.
An inner monologue chatters on inside us, sometimes with more, sometimes with less intensity, but it never subsides entirely. Especially when lost in thought, or pondering a problem, we use language to organise our thoughts. What should I have for dinner tonight? Do I really love him? What’s that smell?
Humans probably developed this innate inner monologue along with spoken language. Once we had invented such a complex tool to discuss problems with others, it seems only logical to also use it to figure out problems by ourselves.
This verbal inner monologue of humans led to the belief that the intelligence of other animals must also be tied closely to their ability to speak. Evidence from animal studies, however, point to the contrary. Apes sit and think about complex problems to find creative solutions, crows bend wire into hooks and use them to fish treats out of containers, and dolphins recognise themselves in the mirror. All of these things would require language and an inner monologue in humans, but apparently not in animals. So, how do they do it? To answer, we probably have to broaden our understanding of language.
An animal’s inner “monologue” might not consist of words, but images, smells, touch, or a combination of other senses they use to communicate with others.
Snakes, for instance, taste the air with their notorious flick of their tongues. More specifically, they stick the bifurcated ends of their tongues into cavities inside their mouths, where a highly developed organ (one humans do not have) smells the particles on it. They use this superior sense of smell to communicate their own gender, age, and willingness to mate to other snakes with pheromones.
It seems only logical that snakes would imply the same method of communication to speak to themselves. They probably do not think, “I’m really horny, I wonder if there’s a handsome snake-boy around…” Instead, they might think the smell of a young, male, down-for-business snake, instead. But just because they do not use words to ponder their horniness does not mean that they do not ponder it at all.
Then, how might our alien friend the octopus think? How do they communicate with others?
Octopuses have a remarkable number of specialised colour cells in their skin. Some of them, called chromatophores, the octopus controls directly. They usually have three colours at their disposal (not unlike the red-green-blue model used for screens) and they use tiny muscles attached to the chromatophores to mix and match those three colours into stunning patterns on their skins. Some octopuses even create moving patterns and shapes as if their skin were a cinema screen.
There is only one catch. Octopuses are colour-blind.
An octopus’ eyes (which also evolved entirely separately from ours) can only see a single colour. And they have the most ingenious method to compensate for it: they see with their skins. Not only their brains are spread throughout their entire body, so are their eyes. At least in a way.
The vision of their skin (as absurd as this notion sounds) is probably not sharp enough for actual focus, but they may be able to perceive colours and shapes from all directions around them. Imagine standing in a room and seeing literally everything around you at once. Sounds alien yet?
Let us use that knowledge to look deeper into their minds.
Although octopuses are not social animals they do come across each other from time to time. When they do, they use a mix of sign language, stature, and colours to communicate concepts such as aggression or being interested in each other. Some octopuses even show a remarkable affinity for a certain colour (yellow, for instance) and display it much more often than others. Even we language-dependant humans can sometimes learn to tell individual octopuses apart by their favourite colours and particular body-language.
If an octopus uses colour and shapes to convey complex ideas to others, it seems only reasonable to assume that they also use them to visualise concepts inside their minds. If we could hook up our brains to that of an octopus, it might send us a bright yellow shape with raised arms, along with the sense of texture and smell of a clam. Which, to an octopus, might be just as clear a thought as, “Mike, that yellow aggressive bastard, stole my clam yesterday.”
Using our alien cousin the octopus as a surrogate for extraterrestrial life, we can conclude two things. First, we have to be prepared for alien minds and their form of communication to be very unlike our own. Second, it seems safe to say that if we ever encounter extraterrestrial life out there, we will probably eat it.
Part Four: How Would Humankind React to Aliens?
Cries of fear and revenge, riots in the street, entire philosophical and societal structures crumbling into dust, Los Angeles (for some reason always Los Angeles) burning in the night. Fiction displays the discovery of aliens as overwhelmingly negative. But so far, humans have reacted very positively to all the aliens we have found. And there have been many.
Throughout the last sixty years alone, newspapers have been filled with dozens of headlines like Alien Radio Signals Detected (1967), Martian Microbes Discovered in Meteorite (1996), and Alien Megastructure Around Distant Sun (2015). The phenomena turned out to be pulsars emitting regular bursts of radiation, patterns formed by inorganic processes, and simple dust, respectively. But all evoked a reaction from the public. And the public loved it. And then, they lost interest.
During a scientific experiment, which re-used the original New York Times Martian Microbes article to simulate the discovery of alien life, one participant noted, “I would be so interested in this. I would find all the info online I could find. I would keep up with it until I saw pictures of the life. Then, I’d probably lose interest.”
This reaction beautifully sums up what many other experiments have found to be our typical reaction to the discovery of extraterrestrial life. But, other than the public, some scientists have not lost interest in the idea of alien contact. Some even dedicated their entire life to it and joined one of the many programmes to Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, or SETI for short.
SETI, contrary to popular belief and its Hollywood image, is more than the NASA institute by the same name. It is a general term for all kinds of groups listening and looking for alien signals. Some of them are amateurs, and some highly trained professionals.
When the scientists came together to form the first SETI project ever, notable astronomers and philosophers like Carl Sagan and Frank Drake were among them. And can you guess what they called themselves?
The Order of The Dolphin.
Why? Because one of their members, John Lilly, had previously received funds directly from NASA to try to communicate with dolphins. Both NASA and Lilly believed that figuring out how dolphins thought and talked might help scientists to understand aliens sometime in the future.
Unfortunately, Lilly’s project took place in the late 50s and early 60s, and he and his colleagues did some very 60s things: they tried to actually speak with dolphins by giving the dolphins English lessons, they filled an entire building with one metre of water so they could live together with the dolphins, and they took care of the sexual needs of their male dolphin manually. Oh, yeah, and they injected the dolphins with LSD.
What happens when you teach dolphins English and inject them with LSD? Nothing. Their metabolisms and brains do not react at all to the psychedelic, and their voice boxes are unable to produce English phonemes.
What happens when you keep dolphins inside a house in one metre of water for extended periods of time and deny them most of the behaviour they express in nature? They die. At least some did. The others were abandoned when Lilly lost both his funding and interest in the project and moved on to study the effects of LSD in humans. Apparently, those effects were more interesting.
To their credit, The Order of the Dolphin later recognised the animal cruelty associated with their name. They turned away from it to show their condemnation of Lilly’s project as more details came to light.
But the scientists involved have maintained their interest in animal communication and behaviour as a surrogate for the study of aliens. The group still conducts research in the field, hoping their results will make humanity’s first linguistic handshake with extraterrestrials a tiny bit easier.
So? What is the group called today?
The Order of the Octopus.
Sources and Further Exploring
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Early Life on Earth – Animal Origins, https://naturalhistory.si.edu/education/teaching-resources/life-science/early-life-earth-animal-origins
BBC, Meet the Ancestors of all Plants and Animals (2014), http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20140905-meet-the-ancestors-of-all-plants-and-animals
Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds (2016)
The Economist, Can We Know What Animals Are Thinking? (2017), published on Medium, https://medium.economist.com/can-we-know-what-animals-are-thinking-83991bc994c4
Nadia Drake, How Would We React to Finding Aliens? (2018), National Geographic, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/how-would-people-react-alien-life-discovery-aaas-space-science
Christopher Riley, The Dolphin Who Loved Me: The NASA Funded Project that Went Wrong (2014), The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/jun/08/the-dolphin-who-loved-me
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